A Family Matter, Winter 1787
Saturday, January 6
The sky was overcast, the thin light of day rapidly fading. Gusts of freezing wind whipped up dust in the courtyard. Colonel Paul de Saint-Martin left his cabriolet in the care of a groom and stepped into the entrance hall. He shivered. The room was unheated and the chill of the ride from Paris was in his bones. His Aunt Marie had suddenly called him to Chateau Beaumont, her country residence a few miles south of the city.
“May I take your cloak, sir? The Comtesse is with Baron Breteuil in the library.” The doorman gathered the garment on his arm. “She is expecting you.”
A liveried footman led the colonel through the building to a closed door and knocked. At a soft command from within he opened the door.
Saint-Martin entered the library, raised his arm in greeting. A strange, heavy atmosphere pervaded the room. Darkness seeped through the windows; dozens of candles struggled to dispel the gloom. Their light flickered on the gilded spines of books. Eerie shadows danced on the high stuccoed ceiling.
“I understand we’re gathered here to deal with a family matter,” said Saint-Martin with a frisson of apprehension. He glanced at his mentor and distant relative, Baron Breteuil, who rose from his chair. The man was grim-faced. And so was Comtesse Marie, who came forward to greet him, her brow knitted with concern. What could be so serious? True, the baron often looked grim these days when dealing with affairs of state as the king’s minister for Paris. The government was virtually bankrupt. Its critics demanded deep cuts in expenditures and the right to approve new taxes. The baron mumbled a greeting through tight lips, then fell silent.
But Aunt Marie? What troubled her? Saint-Martin could not recall ever seeing her in such distress. She was usually lighthearted and gay, a welcome tonic when his own spirits were depressed. This evening she gave him a weak, distracted smile and inquired about his health.
Servants arranged three chairs at a small table. Tea was poured, sweetcakes served, and the servants withdrew.
When the door closed, the baron put his cup down with a clatter. His hands gripped the arms of his chair. He threw a glance toward the comtesse, then addressed Saint-Martin. “I’ll come right to the point, Paul. I’m asking you to pursue a certain Irishman, Captain Maurice Fitzroy, at one time in our king’s service in the Dillon Regiment.”
“We’ve never met, though I’ve heard his name mentioned—a gambler and a rake.”
“An expert gambler, indeed! He has won large sums of money from Comtesse Clare, my cousin.” The baron paused for a deep breath. “I could forget about the money. She was foolish to risk it. But I cannot overlook what he did to my godchild, Sylvie.” The baron yielded to Comtesse Marie, who reminded her nephew, “She’s my godchild as well, and your distant cousin.” Saint-Martin felt a tightening in his chest. He knew Sylvie de Chanteclerc from summers he had spent at Chateau Beaumont a decade ago. She’d have been eight or nine years old at the time. A sunny child, always eager for a new game. A few months ago over coffee in the Palais-Royal, they had renewed their acquaintance and promised to meet again soon. He had been struck by her uncanny resemblance to his friend, Anne Cartier—lively blue eyes, blond hair, fair complexion.
“She’s a spirited, sensible girl of nineteen,” the baron continued. “For some time, the Irishman attempted to court her. At first, she found him handsome and charming. They met on a few occasions, but she came to distrust him. Polished on the surface. Mean and deceitful underneath. When she tried to discourage him, he pressed his suit even more ardently. Two days ago, she finally rebuffed him.” The baron paused, swallowed, then went on, his voice just above a whisper. “The monster found her alone, beat and raped her. He spread the rumor that she had complied gladly, that I had punished her.” The baron looked down, stroking his forehead.
Saint-Martin gasped, turned to his aunt. “When did this happen? I hadn’t heard. I just got back from Rouen.”
“Late Thursday evening,” she replied. “At the baron’s chateau while he was in Paris. Sylvie had sent Fitzroy away. But he only pretended to leave the estate and hid somewhere on the grounds. When everyone had gone to bed and the house was quiet, he sneaked through a window he had earlier unlatched. In a footman’s disguise, he made his way to her room, bound and gagged her, violated her. A pair of trusted servants found her unconscious yesterday morning.”
The comtesse excused herself and pulled on a bellrope. A maid appeared. The comtesse spoke into her ear and sent her off, then resumed her account. “When Sylvie recovered consciousness, she was in shock and wouldn’t talk to anyone. She was brought here last night, started to feel better, and told me what had happened. I wrote to the baron at once.”
“Aunt Marie…” Saint-Martin struggled for words. “I can hardly believe it! Poor Sylvie!”
“But it’s true.” The comtesse fell silent and took a deep breath. “She allowed me to verify the evidence on her body.”
“And you can see for yourself,” came a strained voice from behind Saint-Martin. He heard the rustle of a garment and looked over his shoulder. A young woman wrapped in a plain brown dressing gown stepped out of the shadows. Her hair was covered by a gray bonnet that shadowed her face. Obviously in pain, she managed to hold herself erect.
She bowed to the baron and the comtesse, then approached Saint-Martin, who rose from his chair. “Colonel,” she said, curtseying stiffly before him.
“Sylvie.” His voice faltered. Shocked by her altered appearance, he glanced toward his companions. Their eyes had fastened on him.
Untying the bonnet, she moved a step closer, then bent for- ward into a candle’s light. “He did this, Colonel.” She removed the bonnet and tentatively touched her face with her fingers, as if to confirm the damage. The left side was deeply discolored, the eye half-closed. Her lips were swollen.
Saint-Martin felt his gorge rising. “My God!” he breathed.
Stepping back, she pulled open her gown and let it fall over the cord at her waist.
Out of respect, Saint-Martin instinctively tried to avert his eyes. But Sylvie held his gaze. She pointed to dark bruises on her side. She coughed slightly, grimacing with pain.
“He kicked her and broke two ribs,” said Comtesse Marie. She hurried to the young woman, wrapped her again in the gown and gently embraced her.
Sylvie cast her a thin smile, then turned back to Saint-Martin. Wrath worked the lines of her mouth. “Fitzroy claims I invited him to my room and the baron beat me for having dishonored the family name. But I swear before Almighty God, the Irishman lies.” Her voice dropped to a hoarse whisper. “I want you to kill him.”
The baron rose to his feet and shook his fist. “Death would be much too quick, too gentle!”
Sylvie sagged into the comtesse’s arms, then forced herself upright. “Kill him!” she cried, her voice low and hoarse. The two men looked on while Comtesse Marie helped her from the room.
When the door closed behind the women, the baron began to pace the floor furiously, staring ahead, pounding his fist into the palm of his hand. After a few minutes, he sat at a desk and waved Saint-Martin to a chair facing him. He held up a document. “This is the king’s lettre de cachet, a secret order for Captain Fitzroy to be held in solitary confinement for the rest of his life in a royal prison.” He handed it to Saint-Martin, adding, “I’m ordering you to execute the royal command.”
Shocked by Sylvie’s tragedy, Saint-Martin could only nod his assent. For a few seconds he struggled to control his feelings, then found his voice. “The captain’s behavior revolts me, sir. Where shall I catch him?”
“The scoundrel disappeared from Paris yesterday, after claiming he was about to be accused of a crime he hadn’t committed. I assume he’ll flee to England, but he may go there by way of the Low Countries. He knows we will watch the French channel ports closely. I want you to organize a search. Alert the posts of the Royal Highway Patrol at the frontiers. As far as the public is concerned, he is wanted for questioning concerning allega- tions of fraud.”
“May I inquire, sir, why you secured the lettre de cachet instead of a warrant for his arrest?” Saint-Martin took a dubious view of this arbitrary procedure that lent itself so easily to abuses of the worst kind. An innocent man could be plucked from his home in the middle of the night and imprisoned without trial, with- out knowing his accuser or the crime of which he was accused. The baron leaned forward, arms on the desk, hands clasped tightly. “I want to spare Sylvie the horror and shame of a public trial. She would have to reveal what happened. Judges would question her testimony, probing into the most intimate details. Every hack scribbler in Paris would spread lurid tales about her.” Saint-Martin agreed. “She should not have to endure the tearing open of such a wound.” And, to make matters worse, he thought to himself, she could lose the case. Fitzroy might go free. The crime of rape was difficult to prove. And the baron had powerful enemies in high places who resented his great influence at court or had been stung by his sharp tongue. They would be eager to credit Captain Fitzroy’s tale.
“Well, there you have it,” said the baron, rising from the desk, the discussion at an end. “Fitzroy is guilty beyond a doubt and must be secretly imprisoned. Once in chains, I can assure you, he will suffer the torments of the damned.”
Tuesday, March 20
Colonel Paul de Saint-Martin removed his gloves and flicked specks of dust off his red lapels. Baron Breteuil had summoned him to his office in the royal palace at Versailles. The colonel sighed softly. Ten weeks had passed since Captain Fitzroy had assaulted Sylvie and the rogue was still at large.
Saint-Martin surveyed the antechamber. At this late mor- ning hour the room was crowded with petitioners waiting for an audience, most of them supercilious aristocrats, fashionably dressed. They passed the time exchanging bits of court gossip. To judge from the impatient glances they threw at the baron’s door, each of them felt entitled to enter immediately.
The colonel smiled to himself. He would be shown into the office before any of them. The baron’s message was cryptic and urgent. Something must have happened concerning Captain Fitzroy.
Punishing the knave lay very close to the baron’s heart. He had been sorely troubled that the search had thus far been fruitless. Fitzroy had indeed fled to the Low Countries, keeping a step ahead of the French agents pursuing him. Saint-Martin himself had travelled to Brussels and received full cooperation from the Habsburg authorities. In vain. Fitzroy had disappeared, most likely into Germany or England.
A liveried servant opened the office door and with a bow invited Saint-Martin in. The waiting crowd stirred. A titter of chagrin trailed after him.
Baron Breteuil rose from behind his desk and greeted the colonel with a smile. “Paul, I believe we’ve found the Irish scoundrel.” He sat down again, beckoning Saint-Martin to a chair opposite him. “I can’t tell you how pleased I am.”
“Where is he?”
“In England.” The baron was silent for a moment, allowing the new diplomatic complications of the case to sink into Saint-Martin’s mind. “One of my agents, Madame Gagnon, a milliner, has spotted him in Bath under his own name. Maurice Fitzroy! Would you believe it! The bold villain!”
The colonel weighed the baron’s words carefully before replying. “That’s bad news for us. He’s a devil, not a fool. He must have found powerful men to protect him, so he now feels secure.” Breteuil shrugged his shoulders, then pushed a sheet of paper across the desk. “A description of the milliner and the address of her shop. I want you to call on her.”
So that’s what this conversation was all about, Saint-Martin thought. He must pursue Fitzroy in England. He folded his arms across his chest and leaned back listening, while the baron went on about the milliner’s report. Saint-Martin’s mind soon began to wander, distracted by a large map of western Europe on the office wall. His eyes fixed on England. Suddenly, London leaped out at him.
Unbidden, an image crept into his mind. A tall, lithe young woman with golden blond hair and blue eyes. Anne Cartier. He had longed for months for her to return to Paris. Fond memories surfaced: beads of dew dripping from a rose onto her sleeve, a ride together in the woods near Wimbledon. Was Providence now sending him to her? From her last letter, he knew she would be in London yet a little while longer. They could surely meet again as he passed through en route to Bath.
The baron tapped his fingers on the desk. “A certain aspect of this mission seems to appeal to you, Colonel. Bath may be the loveliest city in Britain and offers pleasures to suit every taste. But you will be there on serious, dangerous business.”
Caught day-dreaming, the colonel quickly collected himself. “I’m fully aware of that, sir. Fitzroy’s wily as well as ruthless.” From the report of others, Saint-Martin had formed a mental picture of this foe he had yet to meet. Medium height, slender build, wavy black hair, soft blue eyes, high forehead and refined, delicate features. This almost feminine appearance masked the strength and agility of an athlete. An accomplished fencer, he was also expert with dueling pistols.
“May I ask, Baron, why you have chosen me for this mission rather than, say, an experienced agent like Inspector Quidor?” “We’re dealing with a family matter, Colonel, as well as a crime. You have a personal interest in the mission and the discretion to carry it out properly. I can trust you to avoid diplomatic complications. You know the English and their ways and speak their language. Our relations with them are tense at present. They fear we shall intervene in the quarrel among the Dutch, clash with the Prussians, upset the balance of power in the region. In a few words, you will abduct Fitzroy for me without making a mess. Quidor is clumsy, as we learned in the necklace affair.” Saint-Martin smiled inwardly. A little more than a year earlier,
Quidor and his ruffians had tried to kidnap Comte de la Motte, who was in England selling off diamonds from the notorious stolen necklace intended for the French queen. Debarking near Newcastle like a small invading army, they witlessly stirred up the authorities and had to flee in confusion.
“I suggest you travel as a private person on vacation. I’ll supply the money and documents you’ll need.”
“And what of my duties as a provost of the Royal Highway Patrol?”
“I’ll find someone to act in your place.” The baron paused, his voice took on a conspiratorial tone. “I do not intend to inform our foreign minister. He might become unduly alarmed. Our embassy in London, therefore, will not be aware of your mis- sion. As I’ve said, this is a family affair. The less that’s known of it, the better.”
The baron reached into a pile of papers on his desk, then looked up as if to say, if there’s nothing else…?
“I understand what you expect of me,” said Saint-Martin, rising from his chair. “By the way, I’d like to take my adjutant, Georges Charpentier, with me as a valet.”
“By all means. Good man. Knows England. How soon can you leave?”
“By Friday, the 23rd, arriving in Bath a week later, with a couple of days in London en route.”
The baron wrinkled his brow in an afterthought, then drew a small silver case from his pocket. “Take this with you, Paul. And study it from time to time.”
Saint-Martin opened it to a recent miniature portrait of Sylvie in a gauzy white summer dress. She gazed at him with a happy, innocent expression. He felt profoundly saddened, then angered. A precious part of the young woman’s spirit had been brutally destroyed. He snapped the case shut and muttered through tightly pressed lips, “This should help me remember why I’m going.” He bowed stiffly to the minister and stalked out.
# # #
Outside the baron’s office, Saint-Martin’s mind was churning. How could he apprehend a wily, ruthless, well-connected villain in England, a foreign country, France’s enemy for centuries? He walked rapidly through the state apartments of the royal palace, oblivious to the bustle of courtiers and clerks around him. By an instinct he had learned to trust, he sought out the great palace garden that André Le Nôtre had built for Louis XIV over a century ago.
From the terrace outside the palace, Saint-Martin gazed out over this vast symbol of the Sun King’s glory. Broad flights of stone steps led from one level down to another. Wide graveled avenues cut through a regimented forest of trees. Water jetted from fantastic fountains or mirrored the sky in still, pellucid pools. Colossal statues struck every conceivable attitude. A marvelous symmetry and balance ruled over all.
Saint-Martin drew a deep breath. The garden’s formal grandeur, so striking in early spring with trees and bushes just beginning to bud, reassured him that the human mind could master even the most wayward impulses of nature. The human variety, included.
This place had once been little more than shifting sand and marsh. Louis XIV had decided it would become a great garden, cost what it might. His architect Le Nôtre designed an ambitious plan, brought in earth, water, and stone, set thousands of men to work to create a masterpiece of cultivated taste and intelligence, a symbol of the absolute authority of the French state and its monarch.
Saint-Martin felt certain that a similar intelligence and energy could be brought to bear on Fitzroy. Beneath his polished, elegant surface, the captain was a primitive man, a wily brute, all sand and marsh. Baron Breteuil was as determined as the great king and willing to spend whatever it would take to outwit and capture the miscreant. Like the king’s architect, Saint-Martin would have to devise a credible plan and execute it. A daunting task, but in an odd way he felt lifted up by the majesty of the state. Its ideal of justice would inspire him, and its power would enable him to prevail.
He left the terrace and walked down the steps into the garden. The parterres to left and right still slept, awaiting their floral robes. In the Apollo basin, a gusty spring breeze rippled water around the sun god in his chariot rising from the depths. In the distance, the Grand Canal stretched out nearly to the horizon. A few pleasure boats drifted lazily on its shimmering surface.
He imagined himself out there with Anne, her hands dangling in the water while he rowed. “That’s for a warmer season,” he murmured to himself, for the sun had slipped behind a cloud and the breeze had turned chilly. He found a sheltered bench with a view of Apollo’s fountain, pulled a small case from his pocket, and opened it to a miniature portrait of Anne. Their deaf friend Michou had painted it last summer. Saint-Martin had carried it with him ever since.
As he gazed at Anne’s image, his mind drifted back to that time. He and Anne had stood side by side at this very fountain after a private royal audience. She had handed over to the king the priceless stolen jewels she had recovered, having been wounded in a struggle with its thief. As a reward, the king had given her a fine cabochon emerald set in gold and hung on a gold chain.
In the fountain’s reflected light, she had asked Saint-Martin to help her put it on. He had slipped behind her and fastened it around her neck. She had turned her head and ravished him with a tender smile. His heart leapt. It was a moment he would never forget.
Later in September, as Anne was leaving Paris for London, they had agreed to be friends. He had wanted a more committed relationship, perhaps marriage, but had cautiously yielded to her yearning for independence. She had said she’d only be gone for a few weeks, visiting grandparents and friends.
Saint-Martin looked up to the sky, searching for the sun, then sighed. The “few weeks” had stretched out into seven months. Anne had nursed her grandmother through a lingering fatal illness. Her letters had expressed an ardent wish to see him soon. But delay followed delay until he wondered if she were losing interest in returning to Paris, to Abbé de l’Épée’s school, where she had been learning to teach deaf children. Had she been trapped into caring for other aged relatives? She might stay in England forever.
He stared again at Anne’s portrait as if his gaze could somehow bring her back to his side. How he longed for her! He returned the case to his pocket, leaned back on the bench, and thought ahead to his forthcoming visit to England. He would seek her out in the village of Hampstead near London where she was staying with her grandfather. Would her face light up, her arms reach out, when he appeared on her doorstep?
Buoyed by a fragile hope, he imagined the two of them riding in the lovely green English countryside, her blue eyes teasing him, her cheeks flushed with pleasure. The prospect lifted his spirits. But a quiet voice within warned him not to let his hopes rise too high. Or distract him from his task. He rose from the bench and walked purposefully back to the palace.